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‘Thank you, sir. Come again real soon.’

INSIDE/OUT

“Thank you, ma’am. Thanks for shopping at our store.”

“Thank you, sir. Come again real soon.”

The way I came to be a holiday door greeter takes a bit of

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explanation. One late November when I was 15, I was offered a job as

a security guard at a department store downtown. I was already

working summers as a janitor at the store, a three-story throwback to

an earlier time. My security-guard hours would be from 6 to 9 every

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night through December.

“Who knows?” suggested the store manager, Nadine. “You just might

meet a few pretty girls in your handsome uniform.”

This was a terrific selling point for me. I immediately pictured

myself cutting a fierce swath through the lingerie department, my .45

dangling loosely from my utility belt as I spied a gang of male

shoplifters stealing girdles in Aisle 6.

“I’ll give you five seconds to put them back,” I’d say in a husky,

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Clint Eastwood voice. “Five seconds before I blow you to hell,

scumbags.”

And all the ladies standing by the bra racks would swoon.

I took the job.

But a few days later, as Nadine was handing me my uniform in her

office, I realized she’d exaggerated a bit when she called it

handsome. In fact, it wasn’t even a uniform, just a few odds and ends

Nadine had managed to scrape together from the supply room.

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Nothing about the outfit worked. The dusty cap Nadine handed me

was about three sizes too small, so it sat on the top of my head like

a black tiara. I had a walkie-talkie that was completely useless,

since Nadine was only able to find one walkie-talkie. I had a set of

handcuffs with no keys. The only thing about the get-up that could

pass for a weapon was a big, aluminum flashlight. But since there

were no batteries in it and the battery compartment had rusted shut,

it was pretty much just a long, lightweight tube.

I again pictured myself confronting the shoplifters in Aisle 6.

“Five seconds before I -- poke your eyes out with this tube.” And

the scumbags would die laughing.

Hiring a security guard had been something of an afterthought by

Nadine and the store’s owners. They had noticed a sharp increase in

shoplifting and decided that a uniformed guard strolling through the

departments might cut down on their losses. But since the store had

already begun the long, painful process of going out of business,

there was no real budget for security. “Hey,” someone suggested,

“Let’s put a uniform on that big kid from maintenance.”

So, in essence, my job was to be a scarecrow. A 15-year-old,

Puerto Rican scarecrow. Still, minimum wage goes a long way when

you’re 15, so I decided to make do with what I had.

My very first day on the job, a voice blared over the store

intercom.

“TWO EIGHT -- THREE ONE!”

My heart jumped. That code had been specially created for me. “TWO

EIGHT” was a call for security, followed by the number for the

department in which security was needed. Department 31 was men’s

accessories.

I rushed over to the men’s section, black tiara flapping over my

forehead, prepared to defend accessories with my life if need be. But

no one was in the department except Beulah, an elderly white sales

clerk, and a positively ancient black man with a cane who was

checking out a row of men’s wallets.

“What’s the trouble, Beulah?” I asked in my best “Adam-12" voice.

Beulah nodded toward the men’s wallets. I looked over. The ancient

man was sneezing into a handkerchief.

“Uh, Beulah? What’s the problem?”

She leaned forward confidentially. “The man,” she whispered. “The

... black man.”

Oh, give me a break, I thought, and stalked away. Beulah was known

for making little racist comments to anyone who’d listen, so I just

blew the incident off. But as it turned out, she had just set a

pattern for me.

Once the rest of the sales clerks figured out a security guard had

been hired, they would call in the “TWO EIGHT” code whenever a black

person -- man, woman or child -- entered their department.

I complained bitterly about this to Nadine, who acted like she had

no idea what I was talking about but advised me to just do my job.

I was conflicted. I hated the notion of furthering the department

store’s racist security policies. But at the same time, I really

wanted that extra holiday pay.

So I decided if I was going to be a race-activated security guard,

I would at least be open and honest about it. Whenever I was called

into a department to tail a black customer, I would rush in and stand

directly behind him or her. If the they circled around a clothing

rack, I would circle around the clothing rack right next to them. If

they stopped suddenly, I would bump right into them.

The complaints started rolling in. Nadine called me into her

office to ask me “What in God’s name are you doing?”

I explained that I was just doing what I had been asked to do.

“Well ... not so obviously!” Nadine shouted. “Be ... sneaky about

it!”

I put my foot down. “Look, Nadine, you hired me to do a job here,

and I take that very seriously. This is how I do my job.”

And that’s how I wound up being assigned to holiday door greeter.

My job, Nadine explained, was to open the door for customers entering

and exiting the building, saying “Thank you, ma’am. Thanks for

shopping at our store.” and “Thank you, sir. Come again real soon.”

My uniform was meant to keep shoppers at ease.

One evening just before Christmas, a middle-aged white man in a

handsome business suit walked out the back door. We exchanged a few

pleasant words and he strolled into the parking lot, got into his car

and drove off. Suddenly the back door burst open and Nadine came

running out.

“That man! You talked to him! What did he say?”

“Why?” I asked, alarmed by her expression.

“He just robbed the jewelry department at gunpoint! What did he

say to you?”

“Uh, he said it was nice to see the store is serious about

security.”

“What did you say to him?”

What could I answer with but the truth?

“Uh, ‘Thank you, sir. Come again real soon.’”

* DAVID SILVA is the city editor of the Leader’s sister paper,

the News-Press. His columns runs every Saturday. Reach him at

637-3231, or by e-mail at david.silva@latimes.com.


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